For more than three decades, storyteller Garrison Keillor has been making audiences laugh, tap their feet and occasionally grab a hankie via his weekly public radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion. In June of 2005 the show threw one of its good-natured jabs at famed director Robert Altman (Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park) by airing a skit in which Altman was portrayed directing a film entitled People Standing Around Talking and Using Hand Gestures. A few weeks later, Altman began production to bring a fictional episode of A Prairie Home Companion to the big screen.

Garrison Keillor has some advice for Lindsay Lohan's character

Garrison Keillor has some advice for Lindsay Lohan's character

The film, slated to release June 9, features Altman's distinctive multi-character, naturalistic cinematic flavor and Keillor's wry and sometimes whimsical screenplay (and low-key performance as a radio announcer). The movie also boasts a stellar cast (including Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson and rising starlet Lindsay Lohan), most of whom not only stand around talking and using hand gestures, but sing too.

Keillor has long held a special place in the hearts of many Christians for his humorous but ultimately affectionate and respectful treatment of religious people, especially the Norwegian Lutherans of his fictional Lake Wobegon. Christian Movies Today recently had a chance to sit down with Garrison and ask him about filmmaking, writing, and going to church. In all three areas, for Keillor the story is the thing.

How long have you been thinking about a Prairie Home Companion movie?

Garrison Keillor: I started thinking about it when Mr. Altman told me to start thinking about it. I had been working on another project, a screenplay about a small town in Minnesota, but then he wanted to make what he called a "fictional documentary"—whatever that may be—about a radio show. So I started to think about it right then. And we had our disagreements but we settled those fairly soon because I was in the driver's seat, I was the writer.

My first thing was:  "I'm not going to do a Lake Wobegon monologue, I'm not going to stand up on stage and tell a story, won't work in movies." He said, "OK." He wanted to do some scenes in which actors are doing radio dramas. I said "No, no I'm not going to do that. I am going to take the characters that I use on the radio show, the cowboys Dusty and Lefty and the detective Guy Noir, and I'm going to make them characters around the fringe of the movie." He wasn't sure about that but he accepted that and I think I was right. I just don't think it would have worked to have people standing holding scripts in their hands by the microphone. To me it seems a little precious, and I didn't want the movie to be like that.

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How long have I been thinking about it? I guess two and a half years.

Will there ever be a Lake Wobegon movie?

Keillor: Oh yes, absolutely. I have a couple of screenplays that I'm working on. One is based on a book I wrote called Wobegon Boy. And the other is a story that takes place there in the summer and it has a pontoon boat and it has a wedding and it has 24 Lutheran pastors and it has a man who loses his pants. And I really like it. It's sort of a knockdown drag-out comedy. And it would give you a chance to cast the parts of 24 Lutheran pastors, which would be a beautiful opportunity for middle-aged male actors in Minnesota.

I suspect as excellent as the movie is, there will be a minor outcry that there is no appearance of Lake Wobegon …?

Keillor: But it's not a Prairie Home Companion radio show. It's a show called The Prairie Home Companion, but the person I play is not me, and people can see that—I'm an announcer, not a writer, in the movie. I wouldn't know how to play a writer. The characters are fictional.

Of your work, William Lee Miller once said that "one of [your] most striking themes is what one might call a positive or benign irony: getting more than, other than, better than, you deserve." Often in your stories something really good comes out of something that seems bad. Is that a recurring theme for you?

Keillor: I don't know as I would use the term "recurring theme," but I certainly would feel good about being able to do it and being able to do it in a plausible way. I feel that among writers of fiction there is a great deal of pretentious gloominess. Gloominess is nothing that an older person has a right to impose on young people. Young people can be very pessimistic and dark all on their own without us adding baggage to what they already have. And I like the idea of being 63 and trying to get people in their 20s to lighten up.

I think comedy is truthful in that respect. I think this is so much more the truth of ordinary life than the sudden catastrophic worst moment of death coming around the corner. I'm just finishing up a semester at the University of Minnesota teaching composition of comedy, and my students have a problem with comedy. It's because of this pretentious gloominess, which they've picked up from movies and wherever. I enjoyed the same sorts of things when I was their age, but they insist that they can't write comedy and I have to convince them that comedy is another way of telling the truth.

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Keillor, Meryl Streep, and Lohan

Keillor, Meryl Streep, and Lohan

When I read your stories and I see this positive irony, my mind is so primed for Christian imagery that I think of Joseph saying to his brothers "What you meant for harm God meant for good." Is it going too far to say that you're in some way writing about grace?

Keillor: I believe in the invisible presence of Grace. I don't necessarily literally believe in angels, which would be a sort of metaphor for the presence of grace, but yes, I see that. I guess I'm reluctant to … I would resist making them parables.

I'm just trying to pick up story elements. But some of them are sort of like parables. Last week I told a story about an enormous 16-foot long snake that lived for 30 years under someone's house without their being aware of it, and there were certainly elements of parable there. But also it was a funny story.

What is your intention when you tell a story?

Keillor: I believe absolutely in entertainment. I believe in it more and more as I get older. When I was younger, I believed in using this medium to accomplish good, but I now see this as really, really arrogant, at least in my case. I believe in entertainment as a way of keeping things in the air and you're not just sure where they land. There are wonderful moments in a script—you're kind of plodding 1, 2, 3 joke, joke, joke, and then there's a turn and it's amazing when it happens because you yourself don't know where this is going to go. I love that.

I think the audience reads intention, and the idea that I can make them think something by manipulating them, I think is arrogance on my part. If I express myself on the show I do it for my own good, and also I believe in forthright speech as much as possible. So if I want to say something, I just come out and say it. 

I read a few interviews with you in Christian publications, spanning about 20 years, and in each one the interviewer has a fascination with whether and where you are going to church. Is it prying to ask if you are attending a church now?

Keillor: That's not prying at all. Yes, I go to St. John the Evangelist Episcopal church in St. Paul. My wife is Episcopalian. I went to a Lutheran church in New York, which I really loved; being Lutheran in New York City is an experience. But I like [St. John]—it's low church, it's in the neighborhood, it's a walk away. They're very friendly. My daughter loves it there; she sings in the choir and it's really lovely and low key.

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Having grown up in the Evangelical, sort of free-form fundamentalist church, I love the liturgical church where we say words together that are not my words and not your words. That really means a lot to me. I grew up listening to men stand up and invent prayers and the idea was that the Spirit was leading them, but in fact they were composing them in their heads and they were writing in a kind of faux King James style—big prayers and they were impressive, and they were seeking to impress, there is just is no other way around it.

And in the name of Devotion they were doing these big set-piece prayers in which they were bringing in stories from Scripture and admonishing people—that's not prayer. But, when we kneel down and go through a list, and we begin with prayers for leaders of our country and for the nations of the world and then we come down to prayers for other churches and for bishops and priests, and then we come down to those who are in need and those who are sick and we think or we speak their names—to me this is prayer. This is prayer in which one throws oneself before God without a heroic pose.

All the world's a stage — Keillor, Lily Tomlin, Streep, and Lohan

All the world's a stage — Keillor, Lily Tomlin, Streep, and Lohan

Robert Browning said he'd always had a lover's quarrel with the church. Would you say that was true of you?

Keillor: No, I wouldn't be as grand as that. I grew up with tremendous preaching. There were itinerant preachers who I heard in my childhood who just transported me—and also sometimes terrified me. And when you grow up with tremendous preaching and you sit in a room on a hot summer day with a bunch of people and you're sort of transfixed by somebody who's teaching, it's hard to find a place where you feel at home.

Along with that great preaching came a sort of intolerance that I found unbearable when I was a kid: These were separatist people, an isolated group. So you gave up one in order to get your freedom, but then having gotten your freedom you missed what you have given up and you never found it any other church.

And so then you had to give up the idea of finding preaching, you just had to accept that you would never find that again—maybe you're too old for it (although I don't think so)—but you would settle for what you could find. 

I am very, very intolerant of preaching. 

Being a performer, is your bias against any kind of performance in preaching?

Keillor: So much of it is so self-conscious and so pretentious and so literary. But every so often…

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I was in Louisville in a Baptist church, and I'm not entirely comfortable among Baptists, but here was a preacher who simply stood up in the pulpit and told us the story of Job. Job and his tribulations and his three friends, this is a great story, a story you could hear over and over again and if it was told simply, by somebody who's not grandstanding, who just tells you the story, you'd be fascinated by that every time you heard it. You could hear the story of the Prodigal Son every year and you'd never get tired of it. But, when you hear somebody kind of winding up an essay—I'm an essay writer—not interested!

Now you're also a film actor. Was it daunting performing on camera?

Keillor: It was different but it was so interesting to see other people working who are so capable at what they do, you kind of lost your self-consciousness. I was simply trying to be appropriate. That was my mantra: DON'T ACT. Don't be caught trying to act.

I can play a radio announcer.